When the Actors' Playhouse invited me to review their production of playwright Jane Wagner's dramatic triumph, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, I took several deep breaths and said a prayer for Donna Kimball, the local actress slated to star in the one-woman show. A skilled comedian and a member of the new Miami Skyline Theatre Company, Kimball's numerous performances around town over the past two years had won my respect. This time, however, I despaired of her choice of material; frankly, I didn't see how either Kimball or the Actors' Playhouse dared to attempt the feat.
Jane Wagner wrote the show for her live-in companion, Lily Tomlin, and she and Tomlin honed it so many times before it hit the Broadway boards that a film -- using the same title -- was made of the process. (-- film, by the way, that all would-be playwrights interested in developing a stage piece should rent and study.)
Tomlin's finest work emerged in this show, which had its premiäre September 26, 1985, at the Plymouth Theater. I know the date because I attended that night and will never forget the evening. I decided every buddy who owned a nice brain needed to see it and proceeded to empty my Christmas Club account and take along no fewer than fifteen people on just as many separate occasions to enjoy the piece. Without exception, my guests fell in love with the work, and I never tired of the gorgeously written multilayered material, the astonishing wit, or the social and mystical implications of the dialogue. Each and every viewing unveiled a new line or train of thought and renewed the craving to attend again. My best friend bought me the book of the script for my next birthday, and studying Wagner's work became my theatrical equivalent of immersion in Gnostic gospels, the Upanishad, or cabala.
Aside from its profundity, The Search was grandly entertaining. And this, to me, represents true art: something that appeals not to common denominators but to most Homo sapiens, art that can speak to the person with a high school education and to the Ph.D. in dramatic literature, to the actress and the accountant.
Tomlin herself never fell short of perfection as she embodied a host of different characters (often talking to one another on stage) and made each unique and readily identifiable without settling for cliches, stock gestures, or caricature-acting. When she switched from one personality to another, you hardly noticed the transition. By the end of the show most people swore they had seen a whole play, complete with numerous actors and all the accouterments, when the only item that really existed was Tomlin, sans even the barest set or props.
So it was with enormous trepidation that I trudged off to the Actors' Playhouse, clutching the memory of that peak theatrical experience, to see Donna Kimball try to re-create something I firmly believed was unique to one great creative team.
By intermission, humbled was an understatement for my state of mind. Not only had the local venue met the challenge, in some ways they had improved upon the original. Quite simply, what you'll see when you go -- and you should go -- is a brilliant actress in a remarkable show. To her great credit, Kimball fully fleshes out each of Wagner's characters without once copying Tomlin's mannerisms or cting choices.
Trudy, the bag lady, cracks opens this pinata of personalities and serves as the dramatic through-line/narrator. Since receiving too much electroconvulsive therapy, Trudy has become a mental Betamax. Characters come into focus within her mind, and after a blinding flash of light, she becomes these different people, to whom she refers as her "space chums"; the visiting aliens, she explains, naturally find her the perfect subject for studying life on Earth.
Through the course of the play, Trudy flips into the mental state and body of an actress; a tortured fifteen-year-old performing artist as well as her grandparents; a jaded socialite in a beauty salon; two hookers; a ladies' man once hot on the disco floor; a disenchanted single woman; a housewife hawking vibrators on TV; and in an extended segment during the second act, three women trying to cope with the feminist movement and failing miserably.
The grand magic of the piece lies in its subtle development. At first it appears to be a series of hilarious monologues, insightful but seemingly disconnected; gradually the realization dawns on the audience that all these people fit together in a metaphysical jigsaw puzzle. The angst-ridden teen is the daughter of one feminist's lover; Trudy and the socialite cross paths; the ladies' man unwittingly becomes a sperm donor to another character. They don't know each other, but they certainly have touched each other's lives.
On a spiritual level, author Wagner perfectly conveys the concept of every man and woman on the planet being linked to each another; on a social level, she makes observations about the fragility and majesty of such a link. But no words I use can duplicate the writer's genius. Instead, as an appetizer to the play, aimed to instill a craving to attend the main course, listen to what some of the characters observe:
Trudy: "I got the kind of madness Socrates talked about, 'a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention.' I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore. After all, what is reality anyway? Nothin' but a collective hunch. My space chums think reality was once a primitive form of crowd control that got out of hand."
The actress: "I worry that whoever thought up the term 'quality control' thought if we didn't control it, it would get out of hand.... One thing I have no worry about is whether God exists. But it has occurred to me that God has Alzheimer's and has forgotten we exist."
Judith, the vibrator shill: "'But doesn't it kill romance'? you say. And I say, "'What doesn't?'"
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Kate, the socialite: "I'm sick of being the victim of trends I reflect but don't even understand."
At the very end of this still-timely, never-tedious tour de force, Trudy's unseen chums leave a note thanking her for taking them to the theater and giving them the "goosebump experience." Trudy remarks: "I like to think of them out there in the dark, watching us. Sometimes we'll do something and they'll laugh.
Sometimes we'll do something and they'll cry. And maybe one day we'll do something so magnificent, everyone in the universe will get goosebumps."
I want to congratulate director David Arisco, who seamlessly staged the work at the Playhouse, and Donna Kimball, for a first-rate goosebump evening. If there are any space chums out there, I'll bet they're saying thanks, too. If you like great theater, put down this column now, call 595-0010, and reserve tickets. There's nothing finer in the universe than goosebump-producing art.